The bombs that shattered the Boston Marathon on Monday understandably aroused a range of emotions — compassion for the victims, horror at the needless carnage and the lurking fear of our nation's vulnerability to random acts of terror. Given what Americans learned in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing by an American renegade six years earlier, a latent fear of terrorist acts is understandable. We may not know the who and the why of Boston's evildoers, their origin or their motive. But whether domestic or foreign, we know at our core the visceral uncertainty that random acts of terror evoke.
In this case, there is some solace in the inspirational courage of emergency responders and brave citizens who rushed into the danger zone to attend to the victims. There's additional comfort in the resolve President Obama expressed regarding the federal agents' pursuit of certain justice against the perpetrator or perpetrators.
After the relentless decadelong pursuit that finally brought Osama bin Laden to justice on Obama's watch, there is reason to believe the perpetrator will be found and prosecuted, however long it takes. That doesn't dilute the jarring sense of vulnerability in an open society such as ours, but it does affirm the sense that a terrorist cannot escape accountability for barbarous acts.
There ultimately can be no assurance, however, that a treasonous American militia member or an aggrieved foreign terrorist, or simply a deranged bomb maker, cannot or will not strike again. Yet perfect public safety is an illusion. Our society is far too open to achieve impenetrable security. Our vulnerability is also leavened by our diversity, size and basic sense of normalcy. A lull after an attack elsewhere quickly dilutes the sort of urgency and palpable fear that are requisites for a sustainable focus on public security.
The available venues for a terror strike, moreover, are so great that paying the freight for continual wall-to-wall public security has become impossible. From jammed major football stadiums to massive shopping malls to huge churches, colleges and business campuses that house thousands, other targets will always be readily accessible.
If a terrorist of any stripe was behind the Boston bombings -- and an act of terror, Obama said Tuesday, is now the focus of the FBI -- the intention was likely to use Boston's nationally noted running event to attract even more attention. The marathon fell, notably, on both Tax Day and Patriots Day, a state holiday commemorating the first two battles of the American Revolutionary War in 1775. The sites of the battles of Lexington and Concord are not far from Boston. The city itself gave name to the tea tax rebellion of 1773 that helped ignite the march to revolutionary war.
Boston's history, it's clear, could suit a terrorist of any stripe -- an anti-American foreigner, or an anti-government militia extremist. Though either, if part of an organized group, could have made more powerful bombs.
In any case, the carnage was tragic enough. Three victims, one an 8-year-old boy, have died; 176 were injured, many gravely. The wounds, federal investigators reported Tuesday, apparently came from crude "pressure-cooker" devices similar to the improvised explosive devices — IEDs — used in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were crammed with black powder, small pellets and sharp nail-like pieces of metal. The two bombs, left in backpacks or trash cans, blasted flying shrapnel through the air, causing vicious wounds and severing legs and body parts.
The rather simple techniques for assembling such bombs, regrettably, can be found online and adopted by a terrorist of any ideology or delusion. Stopping known terrorists will not easily thwart their successors.
But as Obama emphasized in his initial remarks after the bombing, Americans can refuse to be terrorized. We can respond with "heroism and kindness, and generosity and love," as did the people in Boston, who helped those in need, who went straight to hospitals to give blood, who opened their homes to provide shelter, food and clothing to the athletes and visitors barred from returning to their hotels. That is a lesson, and possibly an antidote, to the fear of terrorist acts.